The United States Department of Agriculture tracks only a fraction of chemical compounds in our food that we consume, roughly around 150 fats, amino acids, sugars, and other nutrients in the things we eat. While these are important, they represent only a tiny fraction of the chemical compounds that make up our food.
“If you look closer at our foods, we don’t have just 150 nutrients,” says Giulia Menichetti, an associate research scientist at Northeastern University’s Center for Complex Network Research. “Looking at databases that are available worldwide, we have between 20 and 30 thousand different chemical compounds in our food. And that’s just an initial estimation.”
Menichetti and her colleagues at Network Science at Northeastern University are trying to identify and track all of these compounds, and also search for new ones. They recently received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for the expansion of their work. Organising and compiling the existing information scattered across in the scientific journals and fields would be the first step. As the researchers gather more information, they can use what they have learned to predict chemicals that have not been identified yet.
Once each chemical has entered our body, it interacts with the bacteria in our gut and then other processes can change it into something that could be helpful or harmful. All these pathways would be needed to be mapped out. Menichetti realises it’s a huge endeavor, “There are many challenges from a modeling level, from a data level, from a computer science level,” she says. “I would never have expected to work on food, but it’s a beautiful challenge and we’ve taken so many steps forward.”
She imagines a future in which we would be able to track our daily eating patterns and have full knowledge and a unique description of the chemicals that we ingest. If we can combine it with our individual genetic makeup and health history, this information could provide actual and practical ways to improve our health, by just controlling what we eat.